I realized the other day, when volunteering at Bethany Pres where they feed the homeless, how rejuvenated I felt. I felt more alive, more present, more joyous, serving food and breaking bread with the homeless.
Today was the United Way United to End Homelessness Community Resource Exchange, in downtown Seattle, at the Seattle Center. It's done monthly in San Francisco, and has been tried in other cities, but this was the first time it was done in Seattle. The idea is to provide complete one-stop service to the homeless: medical and dental care, counseling, services for veterans, legal assistance, eye exams, help in applying for public benefits and food stamps, hair cuts, employment programs, wheelchair maintenance, foot washing, and prayer. (The last is not provided by United Way of King County.) United Way is partnered in this with the City of Seattle and the Fannie Mae Foundation, who are very behind the campaign to eradicate chronic homelessness in King County- but there are a number of other independent partners in the Community Resource Exchange. A second Community Resource Exchange will occur for homeless families in Renton in two days, from 1400 to 1900 at the Spirit of Washington Event Center.
We began with a short inspirational speech by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and ended up serving around 850 people today. I had the pleasure of washing feet throughout the day. This involved removing the socks and shoes, soaking the feet in warm water, washing them with soap, drying and applying lotion, and offering towels and clippers for the clients to take with them. Between every client we would get a new bowl, with fresh hot water. The soaking time provides a great chance to talk, and hear stories. Sometimes clients would ask what the impetus was for this, and I would explain how Jesus modeled the idea of being like the lowliest of servants, for in his time feet were very dirty, in a world without socks or asphalt. Yet, though he was an esteemed rabbi, he removed his outer clothing and took on the role of a servant for his disciples. This then is how we should love others.
There were many clients who had very dirty feet. And I was struck with how little we are aware of this. Not all, but many of the homeless try to look decent for the public, just as we all do, for social acceptance, or to get money. But they face great hurtles, in not having regular access to a home or a shower. I've spent a couple days on the streets, just to understand a very little of what it's like. What I experienced was nothing like what those who live it day in and day out of necessity. But I do remember how hard it was to keep clean. And if you're using the sink at a McDonalds, you go for the hands and face- it's just too difficult to get to the feet. When you have to spend a great deal of energy to get clean, you do only what is absolutely necessary. Since feet don't show, you don't have to care for them as much, and you suffer the health effects from the lack of care. Many of those we saw today were grievously suffering from lack of care. And since most of the body's nerves run down to the feet, if you're standing for long periods, and have foot injuries, your entire body suffers. Thus without exception, those we saw were very grateful for what we were doing. They get so few opportunities to clean their feet, or be affirmed as equals. And caring for the feet can have positive effects on the whole body in the same way that the lack of care can harm it.
I also found great gain in this, and thought that it was I who was served by the homeless. One individual suggested I did this to get blessing from God, and I tweaked his statement to say that, yes, I am blessed by God, but the blessing was the interaction with him. Particularly this was true in the stories. A number of clients spoke of just getting out of prison. One shared about having to appear to be strong in prison in order to survive, and how much he missed, not the camaraderie of prison, but rather certain individuals he had come to be friends with there. He has dreams of going to live in Thailand, where the US Government no longer has him stigmatized by a prison ID number that never leaves his records. I thought of how his dreams are just like my dreams, to travel, to find new life abroad- that we were brothers. As he and others shared about their lives in professional jobs or the military in the past, I saw how easily it is for any of us to end up on the streets.
I was surprised to see a few that I've met at the Wednesday outreaches- including one man that I was sure I knew, but I couldn't remember from where. It was only after, in a different light, that I remembered that I'd just eaten dinner across from him three weeks ago! He showed me a doctor's note, saying that, due to carbon monoxide poisoning, he had severe cognitive impairment. He wanted to know what the word "cognitive" meant.
But the man who will not leave my memory was another. This was a guy that one of the other volunteers asked me to take, for she could not stop the gag reflex upon seeing and smelling his feet. And indeed, there was sight and smell. When I came over he had removed a large collection of his toenails- not the ends, but nearly the entire amount. From this layman's perspective, it appeared as if his feet were rotting off. As I washed his feet I also strongly encouraged him to visit the health services section of the Community Resource Exchange. And then he shared his story.
I asked him the same questions I asked most clients: How long have you been in Seattle? Which area do you hang out in? What area of Seattle do you like the best, and why? He spoke of Lake City Way as being his favorite area, which is an odd choice if you know Seattle, being composed of rather nondescript shops and businesses, a surface street thruway between more interesting areas. But he began crying as he shared that that is the place that his brother had lived in. He was very close to this brother, now passed away. But he has now outlived his brother, his mother and father, his sisters and all his siblings, his wife, and his daughter. Last year, in those fierce winter storms that we had, he got a call from the police, as he was executor of his deceased brother's estate. The house of his brother had collapsed from the wind and the rain. He was able to rescue only one item from the house that belonged to him, a cuckoo clock. But he realized that he couldn't keep it secure on the streets, and someone would try to steal it. So a few weeks ago he gave it to a man who has been very generous to him in the past.
I finished applying the lotion and put his socks and shoes back on, and hugged him goodbye. I'm not giving answers here, or conclusions, only stories. These are what I heard, while washing dirty feet.